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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Big Misses from Birding Costa Rica in 2012

I wish I could recount some exciting Costa Rican birding experience that involved dancing my way across a column of army ants while expertly digiscoping a face-off between Black-crowned Antpittas and R.V. Ground-cuckoos as Ocellated Antbirds watched from the Heliconia sidelines. Such Jedi-style adventures will have to wait until 2013, though, because I am currently in the land of gulls.

Niagara Falls is also known as the Honeymoon Capital of the world but the real attraction in my home town are the gulls. Blizzards of them rise and fall above the rapids that rush to the edge of the cataracts. Below the falls, a few thousand other Larids grace the lower river with pale elegant flight, and stirring cries.

It’s downright magical and although I have been here for a week, I still need to get in some quality gull-watching time. I’m not so eager to expose myself to the bone-jarring cold of a Niagara winter but doesn’t magic always come with a price? I also need to study the rafts of scaup on the river to brush up on Greaters just in case I come across one in Costa Rica (which would be a major rarity since there is just one fully documented record for the country).

birding Costa Rica

Glittering hummingbirds are more common than ducks when birding in Costa Rica.

Until then, I hope not to bore readers of this blog by recounting some of my big misses from my birdiest year yet in Costa Rica. I got 17 species more than my year goal of 600 and a few of those happened to be choice lifers. However, I also missed some birds and the following are the ones that stand out:

  • Slaty-breasted Tinamou: It seems like I should have at least heard the low-pitched tune of that wily, reddish-legged dumpling of a bird while birdwatching in Sarapiqui and Laguna del Lagarto.
  • Fasciated Tiger-Heron: I usually get this one during the course of the year but despite much checking of rocky rivers and streams in places where I have seen them in the past, no dice on the thick-billed Tigrisoma!

birding Costa Rica

A Fasciated Tiger-Heron at Chilamate, Costa Ricam from 2011.

  • Sunbittern: While we are talking about rocky rivers, I might as well mention that I also missed Sunbittern! I probably would have seen one if I had waited by a suitable spot for a few hours but I didn’t feel like doing that in 2012. I might in 2013 though because I’m thinking of doing a sort of more serious Big Year.
  • Wattled Jacana: This species is a rare vagrant in Costa Rica but I mention it because I am pretty sure I glimpsed one at a marsh near Cerro Lodge. It was just a moment and at a fair distance but I am 99% sure that I saw red on the bill and that the bird looked blackish. However, it didn’t come back out of that distant marsh so I don’t feel right about counting it.
  • Buff-breasted Sandpiper: They were at the airport again and I looked for them on several occasions. Hopefully next year.

birding Costa Rica

It’s much easier to see Collared Plovers than Buff-breasteds.

  • Franklin’s Gull: I’ll put this one on the list because it’s a common migrant in the right places. I just didn’t go to those right places at the right time of year.
  • Hooded Merganser: This lost little duckie showed up at Pocosol but I could never find time to go and see it! Will it show up again? Well, I could also win the lottery but I don’t count on it.
  • Great Potoo: I figured that I would have at least heard a “BAAWK!!” from one of these huge nocturnal creatures.

birding Costa Rica

Yes, Great Potoos usually resemble a big, bunch of feathers when espied during the day.

  • Magenta-throated Woodstar and Scintillant Hummingbird: I just didn’t look long enough at the right elevations for these two tiny species. Will probably get both of them on a trip to El Toucant in January, 2013.
  • Lanceolated Monklet: No surprise there but I still missed it for the year. I know a spot near La Fortuna though and plan on hitting it in 2013…
  • Black-headed Antthrush: Since I usually at least hear this rain loving antbird in foothill forests near San Ramon, I kind of wonder if I did identify one but forgot to mark it down.
  • Tawny-chested Flycatcher: It’s a rare one alright! Now if you shell out the bucks for Rancho Naturalista, you are almost certain to see it. I did little birding out that way in 2012, though, so no oddly rare flycatcher for me.
  • Sharpbill: I usually get this weirdo at Quebrada Gonzalez. I guess it just wasn’t giving its high-pitched crazy descending call while I was birding those foothill forests.
  • Ashy-throated Bush Tanager: Another bird that I usually get at Quebrada…I wonder if I saw it and forgot to make a mental note. It’s not exactly a flashy bird so that could be the case.

Since the Costa Rica list is around 900 species, I also technically missed well over 250 birds. With that in mind, I better go birding as soon as I get back to Costa Rica! In the meantime, I’ll watch some gulls and hope for crossbills in Western New York.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding in Costa Rica at Paraiso de Quetzales

Costa Rica is definitely a hot, tropical country. At 9 degrees latitude, the sun’s rays can burn with the intensity of some vicious alien device. In the humid lowlands, you sweat but just can’t seem to cool off. 80 degrees is the norm, it feels like summer most of the time, and thank goodness for that! However, the uplifted nature of Tico topography also makes a fair portion of the country as cool as an October night. Go high enough in the mountains and that electric October feeling can also morph into a chilly November. I know this from personal experience because I have wandered around the high, temperate zone oak forests on breezy, misty nights in search of Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl,  and Dusky Nightjars.

The latter two birds are regular while the first is pretty darn rare. I still need the saw-whet sans spots but plan on getting it this year. Part of that plan will include several layers of warm clothing, the outer shell of which will be impervious to water. I know this is what is needed to wander around high mountain forest while tooting like a tiny owl because I tried it on Saturday night at Paraiso de Quetzales (in retrospect, I think you also need to be willing to temporarily trade in some of your sanity). Although I didn’t connect with the owl, I know they are up there because others have seen them in the past.  Perhaps we would have gotten it too if we had checked more sites for a longer period of time. Although we could have spent most of the night wandering around the cold, dark forest, we didn’t want to lose a morning of birding so our small group of owl searchers opted for blanket-covered beds and traded a chance at the owl for much needed sleep.

There is some really nice high elevation rain forest at Paraiso de Quetzales.

The next morning, I I forced myself to get up at 5 and listen for birds. They weren’t exactly flying around at that unforgiving hour but were definitely making their presence known with song. On my brief, pre-breakfast stroll down the Zeledonia Trail, I heard a flock of Barred Parakeets,  several Large-footed Finches, Zeledonias, the wing rattle of a Black Guan, Black-thighed Grosbeak calling a lot like its northern Rose-breasted relative, and Collared Redstarts singing their cheerful, hurried songs. The most welcome sound of the morning, though, was the calling of Resplendent Quetzals. At least two of these spectacular birds were singing. Here is what some of the morning medley sounded like: Zeledoniaandquetzal

After some of the best coffee in the world (seriously) and a tasty breakfast, our birding club group were led by the Jorge, owner’s son, in our search for quetzals. This involved walking up to an area with a large number of wild avocados in fruit and waiting for the birds to show.  After about ten minutes, someone in our group spotted a female flying through the canopy and we quickly got onto the bird.

A typically dull female Resplendent Quetzal.

Jorge explained that the male was also probably nearby since the birds had probably finished feeding for the morning and were just sitting around, digesting the avocado fruits they had eaten for breakfast. While watching the female and waiting for the male to fly into view, someone in our group spotted the male sitting in the same tree as the female. It was perched up there in the canopy the entire time but despite its brilliant plumage, was obscured enough by a clump of leaves to keep us from noticing him! After some strategic repositioning of the scopes, we got the male into view and everyone enjoyed prolonged, soul satisfying looks at this amazing, iridescent creature.

A bad picture of the fancier male.

Watching quetzals.

As nice as quetzals are, they aren’t the only birds you see at “Quetzal Paradise”. Black-capped Flycatchers were hawking insects from fencepost perches, Large-footed Finches scratched in the leaf litter, Yellow-thighed Finches foraged in the bushes, and mixed flocks of Ruddy Treerunners, Black-cheeked Warblers, Collared Redstarts, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers, and other highland endemics rushed through the vegetation. Our group also had great looks at Buffy Tuftedcheek that came in to playback and some people also had glimpses of Silver-fronted Tapaculos that skulked in the dense undergrowth. The best sighting was arguably that of a Peg-billed Finch spotted by two fortunate individuals as this uncommon finch has been a tough bird to find in recent years.

Of course the hummingbird action at the feeders was pretty darn good too! The lighting was perfect for admiring the jewel-like plumage of multiple Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Magnificent Hummingbirds vied with the Fiery-throateds for attention, and an occasional Green Violetear zoomed in to the feeders before being chased away. Volcano Hummingbirds were also common at Paraiso de Quetzales but they didn’t dare come to the feeders. I was surprised to not see White-throated Mountain-Gem in the forest as an orange-flowered sage species was blooming throughout the understory.

Green Violetear.

Fiery-throated Hummingbirds look OK from the side,

but turn into living jewels from the front.


Magnificent Hummingbirds look pretty nice too.

Another big miss was Ochraceous Pewee as the area is usually reliable for this uncommon bird. Oh well, that’s yet another reason to head back to Paraiso de Quezales for exciting highland forest birding in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Digiscoping Birds When Birding Costa Rica- Always Challenging

All the bird pictures on this blog are digiscoped. What “rig” do I use you ask? Well, my scope is a 65mm Swarovski, I presently use a Sony Cybershot, and my adapter is about as “old skool” as you can get. Instead of some wonderfully designed device that steadfastly cradles and aligns the camera to the viewport of the telescope, my adapter is a plastic ring that was carefully cut from a small plastic Coke bottle and covered with duct tape. The plastic ring keeps my camera at just the right distance from the scope while the duct tape blocks out lateral light. All of my shots have vignetting but I just crop that surrounding darkness away with Window Photo Gallery.

It’s the cheap and easy solution to getting close shots of birds but that doesn’t mean that I get good shots all of the time. In fact, I hardly ever get good shots unless the bird poses for long periods in perfect lighting (and probably explains why I have so many nice images of Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees). Digiscoping in Costa Rica is downright challenging. I bet it’s not exactly a piece of cake in other places, but I suspect that it’s a lot more difficult in the land of low light, humid conditions, and dense vegetation. Not all of the sites nor habitats in Costa Rica are so difficult for photography but enough of the country is to make digiscoping seriously challenging.

Take yesterday for example. After pondering where to go for some Sunday birding, I settled on Volcan Barava due to its proximity to the house and the desire to digitally capture a variety of highland bird species. I kind of wanted to go to Cerro de la Muerte but didn’t feel like driving two and a half hours to get there so I settled on Volcan Barva. Despite this highland site being so close to the house (it’s maybe 12 ks), I don’t go up there that often because part of the road is in horrible shape. The habitat is mostly cut over until you get pretty close to the park but you can see a fair number of bird species in remnant riparian corridors. In the park itself (the highland section of Braulio Carrillo), there are trails through beautiful montane rainforest that hold the expected assortment of bird species.

My plan was to focus on getting recordings and photos of species that live in the higher elevation and not in the riparian corridors so I drove up to the park entrance first thing in the morning and waited for the birds. Most species have stopped singing at this time of year so I didn’t record all that much (a Slaty Flowerpiercer or two and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers), but bird activity was fair. Yellow-thighed Finches foraged in the thick undergrowth, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens scolded from the dense understory, and Ochraceous Wrens called from the mossy canopy of old growth oaks. I seriously tried for pictures of these three species but was consistently foiled by a an impressive multitude of sticks, branches, and leaves. No matter what angle I tried, I just could not get a picture of those birds in the open. The only luck I had was with a single female flowerpiercer that hung out in some bare twigs long enough for me to snap off one shot and that was with a truly impressive, light-headed producing blast of spishing and Costa Rican Pgymy-Owl calls.

birding Costa Rica

The one, lucky female flowerpiercer.

I also managed to get two shots of Flame-throated Warbler but one of those was faceless and the other as grainy as cheap camera footage from the 1970s:

birding Costa Rica

A faceless Flame-throated Warbler.

birding Costa Rica

The seventies version.

Once the park opened, I walked along the main road with the hope that the better lighting at the edge of the forest would result in success. I did hit one or two mixed flocks and the light was suitable enough for my digiscoping set-up, but the dense vegetation and hyperactive nature of the birds still denied me photos of Ruddy Treerunners, Black-cheeked Warblers, Yellow-thighed Finches, Large-footed Finches, and even one singing Zeledonia. More spishing and pygmy-owl calling eventually resulted in the other two images of the day:

birding Costa Rica

Female Volcano Hummingbird and

birding Costa Rica

Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

Unlike warblers, treerunners, and other small insectivores, hummingbirds often sit still long enough for photos. Another reason why they are easier to photograph is because even if they rush away before you can snap off a sequence of shots, these glittering sprites usually come back to the same perch. Since most other birds in Costa Rica aren’t so friendly to the photographer, though, a combination of patience, playback, and a sweet SLR with its own 400mm lens instead of a spotting scope are what you really need for major bird photography. Oh what I could do with better equipment! Until that day arrives, I will just have to be stealthier, as patient as a sleeping volcano, and use more playback.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

A Dozen Birds to watch for when Birding Costa Rica part one

Michigan “has” the Kirtland’s Warbler, we thought that Arkansas had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (who knows-maybe it still does), and Texas is the easiest place to see endangered Whooping Cranes.

So what does Costa Rica “have”? Which birds are easier to see in its rainforests, cloud forests, montane oak forests, mangroves, and edge habitats than elsewhere?

Birders use range maps to get an idea of which birds they might encounter but experienced birders also read trip reports and information about the natural history of their target species because they know how misleading those maps can be!  These visual aids can make it seem like a bird species is evenly distributed within that splotch of color when in reality, the bird in question has a more spotty distribution determined by patchy microhabitats.

Good field guides try to avoid the fomentation of false birding expectations by providing text that details aspects of habitat, behavior, and rarity but it’s still easier to just look at the range map and expect to see the bird.

Although tempting, this methodology for planning a birding trip to the tropics could result in a lot of frustration because for many birds the situation is much more complicated.

For example, a range map for Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet might show this broad swath of color that blankets southeastern Mexico and colors its way down through Central America to Costa Rica. Likewise, the Lovely Cotinga is represented by a blanket of color that enshrouds southeastern Mexico, and the Caribbean slope of Central America south to Costa Rica.

Oh, these two species do occur in Costa Rica, but don’t expect to see them! Here in Costa Rica, both the tyrannulet and the cotinga are pretty rare and local (who knows why?). They are, however, more common and easier to see up in Mexico or Honduras.

Costa Rica is at the southern limit of their ranges, so that might have something to do with it, but for some other bird species, possible reasons for their absence aren’t so forthcoming.

For example, Wing-banded Antbird is known to occur in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua found to the north of Costa Rica and in some lowland rainforest areas of Panama to the south of Costa Rica. So why can’t you see this strange antbird when birding Costa Rica? Nobody knows although the answer is probably related to any number of factors such as habitat differences, competition, and biogeography. One a side note, the main birding guide at Rara Avis swears that he saw this species in the foothill rainforests of this site on two occasions.

Likewise, don’t expect to see Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica despite the presence of seemingly good habitat. Although this beautiful, tropical falcon is on the Costa Rican list, it may have never occurred in the country despite residing in forests to the north and to the south.

Instead of focusing on bird species that are rare or that don’t occur in Costa Rica, though, let’s focus on the bird species that you are more likely to seen when birding Costa Rica (excluding Cocos Island) than elsewhere in their range.

In systematic order…

1. Great Curassow. This neotropical turkey-looking thing with a curly crest has a large range that extends from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador. However, since it probably tastes as good as a turkey but lays far fewer eggs,  it has become extirpated by over-hunting in most accessible areas. Although the Great Curassow has declined in Costa Rica too, they aren’t too difficult to see in the larger national parks and protected areas such as Santa Rosa National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and most of all, at La Selva. With wild, tame individuals strolling the grounds of La Selva, this has got to be the most reliable and accessible place in the world to see the magnificent Great Curassow.

2. Black Guan. Almost by default, Costa Rica is the place to see this neat looking guan of the highlands because of its limited range.  Only found in Costa Rica and western Panama, although I don’t think it’s too difficult to see on the slopes of Volcan Baru, Panama, it’s pretty easy to see at several sites in Costa Rica. The Black Guan is pretty common in any of the protected highland forests of Costa Rica like Monteverde, Tapanti, and Cerro de la Muerte.

3. Black-breasted Wood-Quail. Like the Black Guan, this wood-quail is only found in the highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is definitely easier to see in Costa Rica, especially so in forests of the Monteverde area.

4. Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The large range of this raptor makes its placement on this list somewhat debatable but from personal experience, I still think it’s easier to see in Costa Rica than many other places. You can find it at any number of areas with extensive rainforest when birding Costa Rica. Corcovado and Braulio Carrillo are especially good sites. I watch this awesome eagle on 70% of visits to Quebrada Gonzalez (!).

5. Chiriqui and Buff-fronted Quail-Doves. These can also be seen in western Panama, but there are more sites for them in the mountains of Costa Rica. Like all quail-doves, they aren’t exactly easy to see, but you have a pretty good chance of running into the Chiriqui at the Finca Ecologica or Bajo del Tigre trail in Monteverde, and the Buff-fronted in the Monteverde cloud forests or on Cerro de la Muerte.

6. Black-and-white Owl. These are more common than birders think and can be seen in many places, but the easiest ones are in the Orotina plaza. Expect more stake-outs of other owl species in Costa Rica later this year…

7. Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds. Also found in western Panama, the fancy Fiery-throated and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds are found at more accessible sites and feeders in the highlands of Costa Rica.

Fiery-throateds at La Georgina
female Volcano Hummingbird, Volcan Barva

8. Mangrove Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. Well, they aren’t found anywhere else so you have got to see them here! The emerald is pretty easy at feeders in Monteverde, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and San Luis, but the Mangrove is tough. Check for it in any flowering mangroves on the Pacific Slope.

male Coppery-headed Emerald, Cinchona

9. Black-bellied Hummingbird. It also occurs on Panama but is pretty easy and accessible at Tapanti.

Black-bellied Hummingbird, El Silencio

10. All three mountain gems. These also occur in the highland forests of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but are easier to see at various, more easily accessible sites in Costa Rica. The Purple-throated is one of the most common highland hummingbirds, the White-bellied is easily seen at Tapanti, and the White-throated is common in the oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte.

male White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Cinchona
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem Varablanca
male White-throated Mountain-Gem El Copal

11. White-crested Coquette. This fantastic little bird also occurs in western Panama but it’s more widespread and easier in Costa Rica. It’s not exactly common but not too difficult to see if you find flowering trees with the small flowers it prefers (although I have also seen it take nectar from massive Balsa flowers!).

12. Snowcap. It ranges from Honduras to Panama, but is easiest to see in Costa Rica at several, easily accessible sites such as Braulio Carrillo, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and El Copal.

male Snowcap El Copal

Stay tuned for the next dozen or so bird species easier to see when birding Costa Rica than elsewhere!

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding La Georgina, Costa Rica

Most birders visiting Costa Rica seem to get their fix of high elevation Talamancan endemics at Savegre Lodge or somewhere in the Dota Valley. I may have done the same when I did my first high elevation Talamancan birding in Costa Rica in 1994, but as is common with wandering, young birders (colloquially referred to as bird bums), I couldn’t afford to stay there. In fact, I couldn’t afford to stay almost anywhere. I rode the bus, hitched, camped out, and stayed in cheap hotels where the walls were so thin that guests would simply communicate with friends in other rooms by yelling back and forth. If conversations would have been interesting, perhaps I would have joined in. I just stuffed tissue papaer into my ears though because they usually went something like this:

“Hey Julio! What are you doing?”

“Nothing Raul!! What about you!!?”

“Nothing Julio! Lets go drink some beers!!!”

“Ok Raul!! Do you want to drink them here or in the park!?!”

“Hey Julio!! The shower doesn’t work!!”

“Ha! Maybe we can stand in the rain!!! If we are drunk we won’t feel it!!! Ha ha ha!”

The noise level of cheaper hotels in latin America is often the biggest problem (well, not counting the bed bugs that attacked a friend of mine and I during our stay at a $3 per night doozy in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui). On one particularly noise-ridden night in Buenaventura, Ecuador, I was so fed up with the audio intrusion that I was going to buy the loudest noisemaker I could find, like say a stick of dynamite, and set it off outside the door of my noisy neighbor at 5 A.M. My neighbor lucked out though, because the birding is so incredibaly good at the Buenaventura Reserve that I just didn’t get the chance to look for large caliber firecrackers.

In any case, my first experiences at night in the high Talamancas were wonderful in all respects because I spent them camping out in the fantastic forests along the trail up to Chirripo (camping along the trail isn’t actually allowed and I don’t think you could get away with it nowadays which is a shame because it was the best high elevation birding I have ever had in Costa Rica). I saw nearly every highland specialty including the only time I have ever seen Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Since then, most of my visits to the high Talamancas have been to the easiest, most accessible, budget site for high elevation birding in Costa Rica; La Georgina.

Situated along on the east side of the highway that connects San Jose to San Isidro de el General, La Georgina is a diner/truck-stop/cheap place to stay with excellent birding about 10 minutes after the pass on Cerro de la Muerte. The pass can be recognized by it being the most extensive area above the treeline-if you don’t visit Irazu, then this is where you stop for Volcano Junco. At 10,000 feet (slightly over 3,000 meters), La Georgina is pretty high up there for Costa Rica and you will feel it both in terms of the lack of oxygen and darn cold nights. It also rains quite a bit up there at La Georgina, as it did the other day when I made a day trip to the place despite the clear forecast. Although the foggy, misty weather pretty much foiled most of my attempts at bird photography, it was still nice to check the place out and especially nice to see that La Georgina has improved as a birding site. Unlike so many other birding sites in Costa Rica, La Georgina does not charge to use their trails, and still charges reasonable rates for lodging. The very friendly, humble family that runs the place still serves good, local food and the birding is still very good if not better than in the past.

The dining area provides perfect views of Fiery-throated and Magnificent hummingbirds that visit their feeders.

Extensive gardens have been planted that host Volcano Hummingbird, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Large-footed Finch. This young Large-footed Finch was nice and camera friendly.

Two “cabinas” have been built that overlook the gardens and nearby forests. Lodging costs $30 per night. I believe this is per cabina and not per person although I am not 100% sure. It would be very interesting to stay the night here and try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Almost no one has seen or heard this bird in Costa Rica; a subject that Robert Dean and I were discussing recently. We wondered if it might be related to these owls only vocalizing during a particular season, or possibly that they occur higher than the Savegre Valley (where most birders spend the night). If our second hypothesis explains the dearth of sightings of this bird, perhaps birders who stay at the cabinas at La Georgina can test this. In addition to the cabinas, there are $10 rooms available at the diner. Although the walls are thin, I think the few guests that stay here are too cold to yell to each other.

About the only disadvantage of La Georgina is that one has to be fairly physically fit to walk their trails. Although the paths aren’t too steep, there is enough of a grade to make to make the going a bit rough, especially because of the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet above sea level. Birders (and hikers) who are fit enough to do these trails, though, should definitely bird them. I have never seen a place where Zeledonias were so common. I must have heard and easily seen (sans binos mind you) at least 10 while walking the main trail.

The trails at La Georgina mostly cut through old growth, temperate zone rain forest. Bamboo is prevalent in the understory and the trails go near a few streams. A testament to the high quality of these forests were the tapir tracks found along the trail. Essentially, this area is an extension of the huge La Amistad Park as the roadless, peopleless forests of La Georgina are connected to those of the park. They don’t get birded much although probably harbor all the high elevation specialties.

Tapir tracks

As far as birds go, along the trails of La Georgina on that day, my best find was Costa-Rican Pygmy-Owl.

Like the one I had last year on Irazu, I found it by virtue of a pair of upset Fiery-throated Hummingbirds that were mobbing it. Just after the owl, I had a male Resplendent Quetzal. Unfortunately though, he was a lot more camera shy than the owl. Like other forested areas of the high Talamancas, Resplendent Quetzal is fairly common at La Georgina. Come to think of it, I have never missed this species when walking their trails.

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird that was happily relaxing in the gardens of La Georgina far away from any Pygmy Owls.

I also had Black Guan, Band-tailed Pigeon, many Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, a few Gray-tailed Mountain-Gems, Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous, Gray-breasted Wood, and Timberline Wrens, Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Hopefully I will get back to La Georgina sometime soon to spend the night and try for a mega lifer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds high elevations Hummingbirds Introduction

Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds; Identification Issues

Last weekend, I escaped the Central Valley to guide the BCCR (Birding Club of Costa Rica) trip to Baru near Dominical. The drive to Dominical is always interesting as the most direct route from San Jose traverses the high Talamancan mountains. Once you find your way to Cartago (which would be fairly easy if the signs were located a few blocks before the turn-offs instead of after them) and get on the road to San Isidro, the highway quickly ascends the fantastic Talamancan Mountain Range. Although the scenery is nice, it is particularly fantastic because most of this rugged cordillera is cloaked in high elevation rain forest. Just after departing Cartago, the road passes through and near beautiful cloud forest that probably holds a bunch of rare birds. Although there isn’t any good way to bird it from the highway, at least Tapanti National Park provides access to this forest type for excellent birding.

As the road twists and turns its way up Cerro de la Muerte (the name of this mountain), it passes through interesting looking stands of lichen covered Alders and old growth oak forests with an amazing profusion of epiphytes, mosses, and bromeliads on their branches, and passes by the turn-off to San Gerardo de Dota- the valley where most birders stay when ticking high elevation Talamancan endemics. Further on, the highway passes by the entrance to the Paraiso de Quetzales (Quetzal Paradise) where Eddie Serrano can take you on a short tour to see Resplendent Quetzals. He also has cabins now, but like several places, has unfortunately raised prices over the past few years.

Still ascending, the highway reaches its highest points in the paramo zone above the treeline (aside from visiting the Irazu crater, this area is the most accessible site for Volcano Junco). About 15 minutes (?) after the paramo, La Georgina is found on the left side of the road. This roadside diner offers good, traditional food and even better high elevation birding. A steep trail behind the place goes through primary forest and harbors all high elevation forest species of the Talamancas, while the feeders just outside the windows of the diner provide opportunities for studying Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds. Although Volcano Hummingbirds and Gray-tailed Mountain-gems are present, they mostly stick to the garden and forest, leaving the feeders to the two larger species. Similar in size, Magnificent and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds can look quite similar as they both have long, straight bills, and a small, white, postocular spot. Feeders, though, at least provide the opportunity to study the differences between these two high elevation hummingbird species.

Structurally, the Fiery-throated is daintier with a more needle-like bill,

while the Magnificent is a bit more grandiose because of its larger bill size.

A close look at the bills also reveals one of the easiest ways to separate them. Note the reddish on the lower mandible of this Fiery-throated Hummingbird,

while that of the Magnificent is entirely black.

Of course the color differences seem to be obvious too but like most hummingbirds, the colors you see depend upon how the light is reflected off of their feathers. At first, none of these birds showed these glittering plumages that resemble finely jeweled chain mail. They just looked like large, dark hummingbirds until the flash of the camera revealed their colorful secrets.

Another way to separate them when their colors aren’t evident, is by the more defined gorget that the Magnificent shows. Even if this patch of beryl-green is not visible, the gorget stands out as a darker throat, something that the Fiery-throated lacks. It also lacks the distinctive face pattern shown by the female Magnificent.

Our stop at La Georgina was a short one, but I will make up for that by visiting soon to get all the high elevation species needed for my BIG YEAR.

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Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living Introduction

A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.


We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.